Morgan and Marvin Smith

Morgan Smith

"During the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Harlem spread itself before the cameras of Morgan and Marvin Smith like a great tablecloth, and eagerly they went about devouring what it had to offer."

-Gordon Parks Sr.

Marvin Smith

Morgan and Marvin Smith were born on February 16, 1910, to a sharecropper family in Nicholasville, Kentucky. While living in rural Kentucky, the Smith twins were exposed to a limited amount of opportunities. They were not exposed to the opportunities that would lead to their photographic success until the late 1920s when their family moved to Lexington. As residents of Lexington, Morgan and Marvin Smith attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Lexington's sole African American high school at that time. It was in high school that the twins found the encouragement they needed to pursue their interest in art. During their time at Dunbar, Morgan and Marvin Smith developed their artistic abilities in areas of art ranging from oil paintings to soap sculptures. It was only a matter of time before they began working with Lexington artists Eleanor Pryor and Matthew Archdeacon. It was Archdeacon who provided the brothers with their first camera. Upon graduation from high school in 1933, Morgan and Marvin Smith decided to pursue their art full time. Because Kentucky provided black artists with little or no opportunity for success, the Smith twins decided to continue their work in Cincinnati, but when they reached Cincinnati, they found that the likelihood of success was not much greater than it had been in Lexington. It was then that Morgan and Marvin Smith moved to New York to build their careers in art.

Shortly after Morgan and Marvin Smith arrived in Harlem, they found work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) performing manual labor. After settling in Harlem, the brothers began taking art lessons from Augusta Savage at her studio on 126th Street. It was through Ms. Savage that the twins came in contact with other prominent artists and began to connect themselves to the famed "306 Group." The talents of Morgan and Marvin Smith were first noticed by the public in 1937 when Morgan won an award for his photograph of a young boy playing hi-li. Robert Day, the young boy in the photograph, soon became the subject of other works produced by the Smith brothers. After 1937, Morgan and Marvin Smith decided to focus their photographic efforts on life in the Harlem community. Unlike many photographers of the time, the twins refused to document the misfortune that existed in Harlem during the 1930s. Instead, they turned their attention to the positive aspects of Harlem and its people.

In 1950, Marvin Smith left Harlem so that he could study under Romare Bearden in Paris. While in Paris, Marvin developed his skills in abstract painting and had the opportunity to meet and work with Pablo Picasso. During Marvin's stay in Paris, Morgan became interested in film and eventually became a sound technician for ABC. When Marvin returned from France in 1952, Morgan taught him about the film industry and Marvin became a sound technician for NBC. Once the Smith brothers began work in the film industry, they concentrated less on their photography. In 1968, Morgan and Marvin Smith closed their Harlem photography studio at 141 West 125th Street.

Robert Day playing Hi-Li, 1937.

Morgan and Marvin Smith, 1982.
Anthony Barboza

Morgan and Marvin Smith continued to work in the arts until their retirement in 1975. On February 17, 1993, Morgan Smith died at the age of 83. Today, Marvin Smith resides in Harlem where he continues to express his love for art by knitting Kinte clothes. The Smith brothers were successful in every area of their artistic careers, but they will always be known for their artistic rendering of photographic Harlem.

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